Director: Benedict Andrews
Stars: Rooney Mara, Ben Mendelsohn, Riz Ahmed
Andrews’ modest homegrown feature debut has the incredible fortune of starring two of the best actors out there in Rooney Mara and Ben Mendelsohn. That’s some serious clout for a film of this size and scale. It’s an actor’s film; David Harrower’s adaptation of his own play, in which a young woman named Una (Mara) confronts the man who molested her when she was thirteen. That man, Ray (Mendelsohn), works at a warehouse, and on the day of Una’s visit he has the difficult job of announcing redundancies. It’s hearty dramatic material to get stuck into, so the draw for Mara and Mendelsohn is clear. Andrews’ background is in the theatre, and while he makes a concerted effort to take advantage of the inherent differences in mediums, the text itself has a habit of reminding the audience of its origins.
The film chops up Una’s present day decisions with those of her thirteen-year-old self (played by Ruby Stokes), and for a while Una adopts a welcome show-don’t-tell attitude toward its story. In the flashbacks, thankfully, Andrews infers rather an exposes; we’re given lingering shots on the absence of action, of waiting or moments between drama. Pauses. The audience picks up the slack. In the present, however, Andrews is less inclined to play coyly, and the film occasionally feels lurid as Mara’s Una is prized for her beauty and willingness to undress for the part.
As the story unfolds it becomes clear that Una’s compulsion to confront Ray is thornier than one might imagine, her motivations the product of a strange and a-typical obsession. Mara commits to this with intense sincerity; adopting a believable British accent and exploring a character whose actions are often dictated by impulse. Mendelsohn has a long track record of inhabiting those mired in moral rectitude. In short both leads are well cast in their respective roles, and Una only adds to the power of their respective resumes. Playing a substantive supporting role is Riz Ahmed. He’s the least showy here as working joe Scott, an employee fearing for his livelihood who skirts the edges of Una and Ray’s confrontation, but his grounded presence is a welcome one. And, as the wordy script hands the leads showcase monologues, Ahmed affords a more naturalistic touch. He’s as good as his contemporaries but in an entirely different way.
As elegantly as DP Thimios Bakatakis frames the mundane and makes great use of the warehouse that acts as stage for much of the action, Andrews’ film can’t seem to quite escape the feeling of a play transposed. Harrower prizes his direct, explicit approach to dialogue, and so the sensibility flips from show-don’t-tell to tell-don’t-show. A wordy film is fine, but things are a shade too elaborate and the sense of naturalism conveyed by Ahmed is absent especially whenever Mara and Mendelsohn spar. As mentioned, they’re both fantastic, but their eloquence evidences the overworked screenplay.
There’s a conversation here about the masculine approach to dealing with the subject of child sex abuse, and one might argue that recasting it as an illicit romance in Una’s memory discredits the severity of the act and absolves the perpetrator. Harrower inverts the Lolita gaze by having the victim glamorise the crime, something which manages to feel just as troublesome. One wonders how the idea might’ve been captured from a more overtly feminine perspective.
In its late stages Una becomes playful with personas as each of the three central characters take on an assumed identity at a party. The public location tingles with the promise of exposure and dramatic combustion, something that Andrews presses at gently. It might almost play as a comedy of manners were the subject matter not so thoroughly unwholesome. In effect Una comes to feel like a farce with all the levity removed; a drama of inappropriate confrontations about inappropriate behaviour. The film dissects how one experience can be remembered and compartmentalised so differently by those that share it. That we are all our own selves, clashing against others in a confused and often fraught attempt to coexist.